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Training for the Maelstrom

Daily Astorian

Siberian winds blow across the 4,500-mile fetch of the North Pacific, producing huge waves that collide with the mouth of the second largest river in North America just as they reach shallow water.

Shifting weather fronts add wind waves of different sizes and directions to the fray.

“It creates a maelstrom that is famous,” said Columbia River Bar Pilot Robert Johnson.

Johnson and 19 other pilots guide ships of all shapes and sizes across the treacherous Columbia River Bar 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

To even be considered for membership in this elite group, a minimum of two years as a ship’s captain is required, but most pilots have more. To become a captain – or master, in the parlance of the merchant marines – takes 10 years, on average, for an individual with superior abilities. And that’s after graduating from a U.S. marine academy.

The bar pilots are experienced, without a doubt. So one might ask why the Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots would require them, and their counterparts on the Columbia River and in Coos Bay, to pursue continuing education classes, such as the shiphandling school Johnson and his colleague Deborah Dempsey attended earlier this fall.

“The question should be more, ‘Why not?’” Dempsey said. “As ships change, as ships get bigger, you really need to know and learn more about them. I don’t see continuing education for us any differently than continuing education for any profession.”

Dempsey and Johnson were the 15th and 16th Columbia River Bar Pilots to attend the shiphandling school on a lake near Grenoble, France.

Run by the French consulting firm Sogreah, the school was started in the 1960s in response to a “quantum leap” in the size of tankers. It is recognized as the preeminent shiphandling school among the handful of others worldwide, Johnson said.

The pilots are placed at the helm of 1/25th-scale models of a variety of tankers and cargo ships. The students maneuver them about a 10-acre lake surrounded by forest in the foothills of the Alps.

The models can execute maneuvers five times faster than real ships, allowing pilots to practice a variety of situations in a week-long course, which, for cost and safety reasons, can’t be practiced with full-sized ships.

The school’s realism relies on a strict adherence to “principles of similarity.”

A 1,085-foot tanker that displaces 290 tons, is reduced to a 43-foot fiberglass reproduction loaded with steel blocks to create a proportionate displacement. Johnson said a 2-inch plastic toy soldier was attached to the deck of one model as a reminder of the scale.

“Sitting in the model of a 400,000-ton tanker,” Johnson said, “I felt like I was there … not like they’re just playing a game.”

Maneuvers are practiced in the lake’s varying depths. Docks, wave and current generators and a model of the Suez Canal mimic a range of shiphandling situations.

Classroom work studying the math and physics behind maneuvering large vessels reinforces hands-on practice in the lake. The school’s instructors proved to be a knowledgeable resource. “When we came up with a technical question, they could come up with technical answer,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who has been a bar pilot for 15 years, said 90 percent of his work at the mouth of the Columbia River is routine. But the other 10 percent – when a ship has a mechanical problem, when it’s a vessel type he’s less familiar with, or when something goes wrong – that’s when he instinctively draws on his experience with emergencies, such as those he practiced in France.

The state maritime pilots board – a nine member commission appointed by the governor – added regular continuing education classes to its requirements for license renewals in 2000. Other states on both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico have similar requirements.

To renew Oregon and federal pilot licenses, pilots have to attend a shiphandling school every five years, as well as classes on bridge resources management and automatic radar plotting aids at regular intervals, said Dempsey, who represents the bar pilots on the commission.

A pilot for eight years, Dempsey said she put docking maneuvers she practiced at the shiphandling school to use shortly after returning. She took the 780-foot cruise ship ms Zaandam away from the dock at the Port of Astoria, spinning the ship around in the strong Columbia River current without the assistance of tug boats.